Here are eleven essays on bizarre phenomena in American history, from a murderous cult in the mid-nineteenth century to the phantom clown panics at the end of the twentieth.
The longest piece is the account of Ira Wakeman. In a coma after being beaten nearly to death by her drunken husband in 1825 she had a vision of Christ accompanied by angels. As a result she began to preach a curious gospel which, as well as conventional Biblical precepts, taught that she was a messenger sent by God to save the world and bestowed with supreme earthly power. She also developed the idea of the Antichrist as 'the man of sin' who could move from one body to another. It would seem that to become 'the man of sin' all that was required was to disagree with Ira. Unfortunately this would mean that you would need to be exorcised, which in extreme circumstances meant having your head cut off.
There were other ways of having your head cut off. If you believe that if you want a job doing properly you should do it yourself, then follow the example of Mr Moon of Lafayette, Indiana. Inspired by America's great tradition of inventive ingenuity he devised an autodecapitation machine, which he satisfactorily demonstrated in room 41 of the Lahr House Hotel in that city. The chambermaid who discovered the result of this grisly experiment seems to have been a lady of remarkable fortitude. Despite this happening in 1876, she was still working at the hotel in 1915!
Most of the other adventures described here are of a more Fortean nature, including possibly one of the most sensible and level-headed stigmatics ever, Cloretta Robertson, a ten year old black girl living in Oakland, CA., who began bleeding from the palm of her left hand just before Easter, 1972. This seemed to have followed on from watching a TV film of the Passion of Christ. Unusually for a stigmatic Cloretta was not a Roman Catholic but, with her family, a member of a local mainstream evangelical, mainly African-American, Baptist church.
Also unusually she and her family were quite happy for her to be examined by doctors and psychiatrists at local medical facilities and universities. They all came to a remarkable conclusion: Cloretta seems to have been one of the most unassuming, pleasant and completely normal young ladies they had ever met!
Her stigmata reappeared annually over the Easter period for several years, and she became something of a personality at her local church, but eventually they just stopped happening and Cloretta disappeared into the everyday world of lower-middle-class American suburbia. A phenomenon all the more remarkable for being so unremarkable!
'Wild Men' were a feature of many 19th and early 20th century American travelling carnival shows and circuses. They were often impoverished young black men, or vagrants, who were dressed in animal skins and roamed about in cages for the entertainment – although the showmen claimed it was education – of the punters. In some cases, as is recorded here, the 'bestial' nature of the wild men was emphasised by them having a metal plate implanted into their head, onto which would be fitted a pair of animal horns. These degrading exhibitions have been the subject of a more contemporary controversy when an attempt to recreate one was closed down by groups of protesters, despite the actors involved themselves defending it as a vivid portrayal of racism: LINK
Another kind of 'wildman' appears in 'The Secret of Ape Canyon', a tall tale from 1924, where a group of mystically-inclined gold prospectors described being attacked by sasquatch-type creatures as they attempted to uncover the location of a 'lost gold-mine' in the vicinity of Mt. St Helens in the American north-west. Author Robert Schneck points out the similarities between this Spiritualist-led quest and more traditional forms of mystical treasure hunting, such as are described in Johannes Dillinger's book Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America, reviewed HERE.
Other chapters in this fascinating anthology deal with rumours of sinister clowns attempting to abduct children, and linking them to stories of nineteenth-century 'Night Doctors' allegedly abducting people for medical experiments; the ouija board craze that brought panic to the civic authorities of El Cerrito in California; how a small West Virginia town was haunted by a clothes-snipping poltergeist; Jeanne Dixon's White House years; and the historical popularity of vampirism in Kansas City.
Altogether a fascinating and entertainingly presented collection of Fortean weirdness, which I highly recommend. – John Rimmer.